COMING OUT IN BULGARIA

by Anthony Georgieff

The Orthodox Church emerges as the number one foe of Bulgaria's fledgling gay movement

Nothing illustrates better Bulgaria's ambivalence towards relatively new post-Communist concepts such as human rights than its attitude towards gays. On the one hand, one of the country's mega chalga stars, Aziz, is both a Gypsy and a very open gay, who aggressively promotes his sexuality as well as his extravagant appearance and lifestyle. Controversial he may be, especially when viewed by Boyko Borisov who notoriously bans his billboards in Sofia, but he is both entertaining on TV and very rich – and many Bulgarians consider these qualities "make up" for his "crooked" sexuality. In the post-Communist period, Bulgarians have slowly become accustomed to gays, particularly mediasavvy gays working in fashion, design and show biz. But any attempt at "coming out" by ordinary people, especially if they are organised, is either looked down upon or met with unabashed hostility.

Obviously nothing on the scale of London, Berlin or Vienna, the Sofia Rainbow Friendship 2009 parade earlier in the summer went ahead for the second time, with the security guards, the police and the reporters arguably outnumbering its 300-odd participants. In itself that was an achievement, as seen against the background of the previous year where ultranationalist groups resorted to violence to disrupt the rally. In 2009, the reactions of bewildered onlookers varied from lack of comprehension about what was going on, to rejection ("Perversion! Up yours!"), to mild disapproval ("OK, but why should they be imposing their lifestyle on us?!"). An unlikely victim of the vilification was... the British ambassador, who had joined his peers from about a dozen EU embassies to express support for the Rainbow parade. "Let him mind his own business and the business of his country," Boyan Rasate, the leader of the Bulgarian National Union, or BNU, was quoted as saying. The BNU usually finds Ataka's views too mild. "Williams has no right to tell Bulgarians how to live in Bulgaria. We know that Europe has been ruled by homosexuals for a long time. We are not interested in how they live, and we don't want them to impose their pervert lifestyle on us," Rasate said.

Steve Williams, who is married and has three children, explained that "Marking differences doesn't mean promoting a certain lifestyle. Its meaning is to encourage respect for fundamental human rights. What we have here is some basic European values."

The Rainbow Friendship participants started at the National Palace of Culture and paraded to the Red House cultural centre on Lyuben Karavelov Street. They wore multi-coloured helmets to stress that they all had jobs and should not be discriminated against by employers because of their sexuality. As part of the security measures they had to show their IDs to the police and get pink wrist-bands to be allowed behind the lines. Gays and lesbians from Greece, Romania, Britain, Sweden and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia also attended. The rally ended in less than 50 minutes, mainly because of the police urging passers-by to move on: "Don't stop here! It's very dangerous!"

"We've come to encourage our neighbours to stand up for their rights," said Nicolaos Galanis from Greece. He added that the annual parade in Athens had about 5,000 participants and tolerance for gays and lesbians has increased in recent years in Greece, a stronghold of Orthodoxy.

Biggest enemy of gays: Patriarch Maxim, the head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church for over 30 years, receives state awards from President Parvanov, a former Communist State Security agent

But the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was adamant. "The Holy Synod, clerics and Orthodox Christians categorically oppose the shameful and ignominious demonstration of this mortal sin, which has a malevolent impact on society, especially on youth. We urge the government to ban this Sodomite rally. We urge citizens not to take part in what the Apostle termed 'futile acts of darkness' that contravene true faith and undermine the basics of public morals," the Orthodox Church said in a statement.

It coincided with the church's "entry" into the 21st Century, which it marked by opening up an Orthodox website.

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